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Republicans applaud Hall commissioner for party switch
Bell had long history with Democrats
Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell, with wife Lauren by his side, announces his switch to the Republican Party as Gov.-elect Nathan Deal stands by at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce's 2010 Eggs & Issues breakfast at the Gainesville Civic Center. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Commissioner Ashley Bell's decision to switch allegiances has caught the attention of Republican leaders statewide.

On Thursday, Bell announced his decision to become a Republican to a packed house at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce's Eggs & Issues breakfast.

Though seven state lawmakers have left the Democratic Party since the Nov. 2 general election, Bell is the first African-American officeholder in Georgia to join the Republican Party this year.

Bell's announcement is significant not only because of his record as a young leader for Georgia Democrats but also because of his race.

To the Republican establishment, Bell represents an opportunity to attract the black voters who are such a core constituency of the Democratic Party.

"Republicans ... for a number of years, have tried to recruit African-Americans to run," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

"I think Republicans' thought is if they can showcase some African-American officeholders, this may then help them make headway in attracting black voters."

Bullock said Republicans realize the Georgia electorate is becoming more diverse.

"The long term projection is that Georgia, at some point, will become a state in which there is no majority population. Whites would still be the plurality, but they would not be the majority," Bullock said.

"If those demographic trends actually do come to pass and if Republicans appeal almost exclusively to white voters ... Republicans will have found themselves hard pressed to win statewide contests."

Bell got a warm reception from some of the top names in the party Thursday.

Gov.-elect Nathan Deal called Bell "a great addition" to the party when he introduced him at the chamber of commerce event.

"I think it's an indication of what is happening in our state and that is a broadening of the positions of people who understand that conservative points of view are what the people of this state expect because that is what they themselves embrace," Deal said.

"They expect that to be embodied in their elected officials."

Georgia GOP Chairwoman Sue Everhart also praised his move.

"We are excited that Commissioner Bell will help lead the way for many other conservative African-Americans to leave the Democratic Party and join the Republican Party. We welcome all conservatives with open arms," Everhart said in a news release.

"Party affiliation should not be an issue of race or geography. Mr. Bell shares the Republican Party's conservative values and belief in common sense solutions to the problems facing Georgia. I am pleased to welcome such a strong and visionary leader."

Democrats were not pleased with the announcement.

"He's a liberal Democrat. He went to the White House with President (Barack) Obama this year on a special invitation," said Eric Gray, communications director of the Georgia Democratic Party and a Hall County resident.

"It's a sham on the people of Hall County ... Ashley would turn into a Whig if he thought it would help get him elected."

Frank Chi, a spokesman for the College Democrats of America, said the organization where Bell served as national president is disappointed by the news.

"Over a year ago at an event at the White House, Ashley Bell looked me in the eye, and told me that the rumors weren't true - he wouldn't switch parties. We need politicians who stand on principle, not opportunism," Chi said. "We're disappointed in Ashley, but we're not surprised. As the College Democrats Alumni Association fosters a new generation of principled leaders, we know that Ashley Bell will be our cautionary tale."

To date, Bell, 30, has been a prominent member of the Democratic Party. Besides the College Democrats of America, he spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Bell was a policy adviser to John Edwards in his 2004 campaign along with serving as a Georgia delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2000 and 2004.

Bell said though his Democratic resume is long, he has always considered himself conservative and realized his views are more at home in the Republican Party.

Hall County Republican Party chairman Jim Pilgrim said he is happy to welcome Bell and his wife Lauren, who was a local delegate for Obama in the 2008 presidential primary, into the local GOP chapter.

"I think he's a good fit. His record of voting at the commission meetings has been very conservative," Pilgrim said.

"I think he just has a tremendous future in front of him. Especially in the Republican party. I think it will open doors for him."


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